As I stumbled out of my teens and into my early twenties, distracted by the great quantity and variety of questionable lifestyle choices in which to submerge myself, I plowed through a seemingly endless series of low-paying, crappy jobs. There was the movie theater position where I donned a clip-on bow tie and polyester vest and spent my evenings troweling oily popcorn into giant tubs; the printing company where I had to be there at 7 AM and as a result called in sick at least 75% of the time until I finally, to everyone’s relief, quit; the graveyard shift data-entry job where I nodded off over blinking DOS commands and got thousands of paper cuts; the brief, humiliating stint at a fast-food restaurant where my greatest fear (aside from someone I knew seeing me there) was that I would be asked to clean the grease trap.

The longest I stayed at a place where I was given both a uniform and raises in nickel increments was Kinko’s. I worked there for what seemed like a very long time, mastering every position available in the store, and had it not been for the day I sort of woke up and looked at my coworker, an exhausted silver-haired former fighter pilot grinding out what should have been his retirement years being yelled at by Sunday parishioners needing 500 copies of their church program immediately and what do you mean you’re out of yellow paper and realized I was seeing my potential future, I suppose there’s a good chance I’d still be there today, wearing a FedEx apron and explaining the concept of “single to double sided” to the slackjawed new recruit for the eleventy frillionth time.

It was a menial position with 10 minute off-the-clock breaks, barely-above minimum wage pay, and the indignity of being treated like some sort of copy machine fluffer by the majority of the customers I encountered, but I was friends with all of my coworkers. We joked and laughed all day long, even when we were mired in eight hours’ worth of brain-numbing tasks—or maybe especially because we were.

I still remember all these ridiculous things that happened there. The day I was oh-so-carefully aiming a fancy map through the laminating machine and watched in sheer helpless horror as a fly spiraled downward onto the paper just as the plastic squished it flat, leaving its bloody innards permanently sealed across Italy. The time a proud dad wanted us to create a giant color copy poster of his young pre-teen son at a Hooters, two waitresses leaning over him and smiling, and the uncomfortable, impossible-to-miss erection that became more and more visible as we enlarged the stupid thing. The smarmy frat boy who demanded that we produce a “Gucci-level” printing quality for him, my coworker’s mumbled comeback as she walked to the machine, my hysterical laughter at the transaction that actually resulted in me having to go home and change my pants.

Oh, good times, Kinko’s. I went on to more professional jobs, better paying jobs, and jobs with many more benefits, but sometimes I think that stupid little copy store was the best place I ever worked.

Do you have any fond memories of your entry-level jobs?


90 Responses to “$4.25 an hour”

  1. Christina on April 17th, 2009 5:41 am

    That is a loaded question! I had a lot of “food service” related jobs. TCBY, Subway, a local ice cream joint in a small college town, Caribou coffee. All of these jobs produced hysterical moments. People are very ummm PARTICULAR about their subs/coffee/ice cream I found and demanding and well down right cranky if you put three green peppers versus four on their sub or fill their coffee cup 1/16 too full.

    At the local ice cream joint we used to joke that there ought to be a scale at the door that made it lock when people of certain sizes came in. It was a cruel “joke” made by a bunch of skinny college girls who did not get why overweight people ate so much. Very mean looking back…

    My most depressing job was a temp job I was assigned in Milwaukee. It was in the depths of the city building, I think. The windows were all eye level to the street so there was little to no natural light and all you saw were shoes passing by all day long. I did data entry on DEAD BEAT PARENTS. It was mind boggling-ly boring and painfully depressing all at once.

    Oh and I worked at photo shop – you back when there was film that had to be printed and the photo that came out… fascinating to say the least!

  2. Alison on April 17th, 2009 6:16 am

    So yes – also a customer-service-type slog, of course. Working for a mail-order clothing company (a thrilling experience, I can tell you) teaches you more than you ever wanted to know about people. Everything from the loveliest, most charming persons to the biggest a*holes on the planet.

    One of my closest friends is someone I worked with at that job – we’ve now been friends for over ten years. I think that makes that woeful job my favorite!

  3. bessie.viola on April 17th, 2009 6:34 am

    My first job in high school was as a junior hostess for the famous Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth. Anyone who’s traveled I-75 probably is aware of their “famous chicken dinners.”

    It’s a fantastic restaurant – I have no yucky food stories from that place, and I worked there for three years. However, what was AWESOME about it was working every weekend with 10 or more of my friends, exploring the hidden nooks and crannies of the restaurant (yes, you CAN get into that cupola on top of the building).

    There were a couple of hidden passages/hallways in the building, although we never did find the fabled passageway that supposedly runs beneath the street to the Bavarian Inn…

    Great times.

  4. Susanne on April 17th, 2009 6:37 am

    I worked at a supermarket and that was the best job I’ve ever had. I swear, if they paid me enough to support myself, I’d still be working there today. Just like you said, I was friends with all my co-workers and we would have so much fun together! I would actually show up early (and stay later) just so I could hang out with everyone. I am never early and now I struggle to make it to my current job on time!

  5. Becky on April 17th, 2009 6:39 am

    My first job was at Domino’s Pizza — answering phones. Stayed on throughout high school and eventually moved up to making pizzas. Everyone complains about food service — but it was so much fun to work there because you rarely had to deal with the customers face to face. You could make faces while talking on the phone with them – or even put them on hold when they were being jerkwads. The people that worked there were a lot of fun too — sometimes I wish I could back to that brainless sort of job!

  6. Shawna on April 17th, 2009 6:52 am

    I used to maintain an aseptic colony of doomed lab mice. What this meant was moving mice from their old, dirty cages into the new, clean, sterile ones – the whole works inside a sterile laminar-flow hood – then dumping the old cage contents, sealing and autoclaving the cages, then taking the sterile cages back to the hood and adding special bedding and food so that they were ready for the same mice again the next day.

    Tedious and repetitive, yes. But! My boss and coworkers couldn’t stop talking about what a hard worker I was and how fast I picked things up, I became part of a vibrant and active summer student community of fellow geeks (and dare I say, popular, what with my flipping burgers to order at the camping weekend, influencing them to skinny dip, helping plan the social events, etc.), and I had a captive audience as I sang opera to my mice while mopping the floor at the end of the day. Good times!

  7. Jessi on April 17th, 2009 8:19 am

    I was the receptionist at a Driving School when I was 18. BEST JOB EVER! I scheduled the kids for their driving times (Asshole kid = little driving time).
    Collected money at each new session (owner would hand me a couple hundred bucks after just because).
    Hear about affairs driving instructors were having (girlfriends would call the office and go “You know who I am?” and I’d respond, “Not his wife!”).
    Because I knew about the affairs, I’d get beer whenever I wanted.
    Pick up stranded drivers and instructors because they drove with the parking brakes on. If you do that, you won’t have brakes after an hour. She never did come back to teach.
    Listen to the radio all day and win stupid contests for free concerts, money, cd’s, you name it.

    It was seriously the best gig. I hated leaving it.

  8. julia on April 17th, 2009 8:36 am

    I babysat and scooped ice cream, but my first legal job was with an environmental community service organization. We helped run the town recycling center, did pond water quality studies, built handicapped access ramps, etc.

    The best thing I learned (on the pond project) was how to use a spiffy new software program called Excel, which is pretty much how I make my living as an adult. It’s funny how similar the job I had when I was 15 is to the job I have today.

  9. Helen on April 17th, 2009 9:36 am

    I worked in a sea front gift store/ jewellers, I engraved blue china mugs with names ordinarily never found on a mug and I pierced ears. I pierced the ears of a friend, aged 26 and his mother told me off, for weeks…he was TWENTY SIX! I loved that job.

  10. sarcy on April 17th, 2009 9:40 am

    I started my first job (aside from baby-sitting) at age 17, bagging groceries at a small local market. Many coworkers became my friends. I did well and was promoted to cashier and then the service desk. I got to know many customers by name. Some of them were sweet (the Jehovah’s Witness pastor who would sing to me as he paid for his 40 of King Cobra), others routinely weird (the guy who we had to stop selling vodka to, and then mouthwash, because he would drink it and pass out under the pine trees in the parking lot).

    The best part was helping to train a new bagger soon after I started there. He was like no one I’d ever met before. Next month will be twelve years since we met among the groceries. We’re married and have a son and another baby due this fall.

  11. Jenny on April 17th, 2009 9:48 am

    I worked at a camp one summer. I was on the Accomo (accomodations) team, and we cleaned bathrooms, moved hay bales, mopped floors, collected trash, did dishes, stuff like that. I killed scorpions with the handle of my broom (so badass!) and teased my coworkers about being scared of “meat bees” (wtf?) We were such good friends that summer, all in and out of love with each other, campfires every night, excursions down the mountain for the best calzones in the world. Best job there ever was.

  12. Kim S. on April 17th, 2009 9:59 am

    Oh I do! In my late 20s I was working a job I HATED so I up and quit and took a job at Borders. I have never had so much fun at a job. The people were all SO smart and funny. We would close at 11 at night and blast the music while we cleaned up people’s mess, treating the main drag down the store’s middle as a runway, flipping our lanyards behind us like silk scarves. I still feel a connection to those people and to that time in my life. And damn, I miss that discount.

  13. Christy on April 17th, 2009 10:08 am

    My very first job was at a frozen yogurt shop. I worked with one of my best friends, and on the few occasions we were left on our own to “man” the store we ate whipped cream right from the can. Also, my first stitches. I slipped on a wet floor and sliced my hand open.
    My most interesting job, however, was in a neuropathology lab in college. I had to mix chemicals for use in the lab. Sometimes, I had to go down to the brain room (yes, brain) to retrieve a particular specimen for study. Imagine shelves and shelves of brains in jars in a dark storage room of a hospital.
    I love reading about everyone’s jobs.

  14. Amy on April 17th, 2009 10:46 am

    My mom was Marketing Director a mall in the town where I live so she was always hooking me up with jobs, which included:

    A bookworm at a reading event in the mall
    The elf that ran the santa train at the mall
    The elf that took the pics of kids/santa
    A Manuquin (sp?) model – the pay was better but having some staring at you waiting for your eyes to blink creeped me out – until I starting wearing sunglasses – genious!
    a clown at the dreaded Breakfast with Santa at the mall

  15. AH on April 17th, 2009 11:53 am

    My friends and I answered an ad at college to do a one-day inventory for a tire company outside of Chicago. We were greeted by our “BOSS” who we swear was in the mafia. He gave us flashlights and checklists- and we spent the whole day climbing huge stacks of tires and counting them. We were fed subs for lunch and handed $100 cash at 5. It was the best job, seriously.

  16. Molly on April 17th, 2009 11:54 am

    I was a store artist for WholeFoods Market for years and years – I got the job when I was 19 or 20 and made many longtime friends during my time there. There were so many jokes and so much laughter going on “in the back” it made the crappy hours/spoiled customers/low pay almost worthwhile! I still really miss a lot of my old coworkers.

  17. KJ on April 17th, 2009 11:58 am

    Mine was at a welcome center for my little tourist town. Met some really cool, and some really horrible people. Met people from all over the world. ALSO got some awesome questions about the area. Great examples: when do the deer turn into elk? and does the altitude change when it snows?
    Best “most funnest” $5/hr I ever earned.

  18. Elaine on April 17th, 2009 12:04 pm

    Oh man, some great stories here! My first job was at a little family-owned donut shop, right across the street from a church and a school. I actually began working as a temp during Mardi Gras, and all I did was decorate, box, and ship King Cakes. I stayed on because somebody else quit and I was a morning person, and it was a great job working with fun people. Man oh man did I eat the heck out of some free donuts! I have a distinctly awful memory though, of taking a milk crate outside to use as a stool while washing the outside of the windows (Yep, I was the low girl on the totem pole) and looking down ten minutes later to find my legs and apron covered in red ants. Yeouch!!

  19. Gina on April 17th, 2009 12:58 pm

    My first “real” job was awesome. I got paid $3-something an hour (I can’t recall exactly, but I do remember that it was good bit over minimum, so that tells you how long ago this was). I had to visit worksites daily to collect paperwork and check that safety and employment rules were being followed. Some were offices, but a lot were in parks and places that were out in the boonies. I loved it. I spent the day driving all over a very scenic area, taking long lunch breaks and listening to music, with no one looking over my shoulder. And I got paid mileage too.

  20. Kristin H on April 17th, 2009 2:03 pm

    Both my waitressing jobs were fun, but working at the Red Robin in Boulder was probably the best. We were all good friends and the bartenders would fix us purple hooters whenever we wanted. Plus I could arrange my schedule to go snowboarding or climbing all the time. One particularly busy and stressful night, after I’d had several drinks, I was on my way home when realized I still had a table that was waiting for their check! Whoops!

  21. Shawna on April 17th, 2009 4:30 pm

    Can I just say that some of these comments are making me nostalgic for jobs I never even had? Seriously, best topic to come up in a long while (not that I don’t love the usual stuff, just that this is a nice change). And I find it very interesting that so many people loved low-paying, “menial” jobs so much. Bosses should read this comment section for ideas on how to increase employee retention.

  22. Joanna on April 17th, 2009 5:32 pm

    The summer I turned 16, I got a job waitresses on the Pennsylvania turnpike at a Bob’s Big Boy. It was a bunch of teenagers working there in all kinds of jobs. We had so much fun joking around and playing practical jokes on each other. If the place still existed, I could walk in there and be right back into it, 20 years later. I know 3 couples that met their spouse there, including my sister.

  23. Mandee on April 17th, 2009 6:35 pm

    Answering the phone in my senator’s office on Capital Hill in Washington. It was my first job out of college and I was trying to survive on $19.5K a year in DC. I had to answer the phones during impeachment and following Sen. McCain’s proposed tax hike on cigarettes. I had to talk to stupid people all day every day, but I worked with the most fun group of people ever assembled. We laughed all the time.

  24. Frema on April 17th, 2009 6:57 pm

    The summer before my senior year in high school, I landed a job at my neighborhood mom-and-pop video store, a job all the kids wanted because you could eat behind the counter and get free movies and use the phone when nobody was in the store. I’d been after the owner for months to hire me but was afraid to because he stocked porn and thought I was too young (OH MY GOD HE WAS SO RIGHT). But he finally caved and I worked there my entire senior year. Sure, the creepy paralegal who worked there part-time once hit on me when he was drunk and I was asked on a date by one of our porn regulars, but hey, free movies when you’re 17 is pretty damn awesome.

  25. SW on April 17th, 2009 8:20 pm

    In high school I worked weekends at a fish & chips restaurant on the local waterfront. My best friend was the cook and I was the lone waitress, and OH the fun we had during the very slow winter time!!!

    The owner was a Southern gent, who rolled in an hour before closing every night, sowsed on gin, to help close. He’d sit at the restaurant/bar next door for 2 hours, so he was pretty well toasted. On a particularly slow Sunday, my best friend and I were bored. So we dressed up in rubber gloves, chef hats and put our clothes on backward and played a round of quarters with water. Which progressed to standing on the counter, singing ‘you are my sunshine’ opera style, while using spatulas and a whisk as microphones. We lost track of the time and got caught by the boss mid-song. We all just stood there staring at eachother for a few seconds, before he said “What in the SAM HAYELL is goin’ on in HERE?!” We jumped down from the counter and mumbled something about boredom while straightening ourselves up. He burst out laughing,until he was crying. And that was that.

    Also a fun part of that job…. The commercial dishwasher with the big pull out sprayer. We got in some wicked water fight with that bad boy….it sprayed a good 6 feet.

    Aaaaand last but not least, the most valuable life lesson learned at that job….. Never, ever, EVER, under any circumstances, behave poorly toward people who handle your food. Bad behavior = fish fillets wiped on the floor before they are battered & deep fried. Code words ‘extra seasoning’.

  26. Laura on April 17th, 2009 8:33 pm

    As someone that works at Kinko’s, or FedEx Kinko’s or now FedEx Office THANK YOU for this post. Although I don’t wear the apron anymore and instead deal 24-7 with irate customers as a manager, I still remember the good days when I enjoyed my coworkers and had a great day when I accomplished having multiple machines running without jams….I need a new job.

  27. Erin M. on April 18th, 2009 2:35 pm

    I worked at a video store for a year and a half when I was 19 or so, and seriously, it was the funnest job I ever had. Free movie rentals (“video cassettes”, remember those? Ah, 1996…); a liquor store across the parking lot where my manager would buy a bottle of cheap wine a hlaf an hour before close that we would drink out of paper cups in the back before and after closing up on Friday nights; having to splice the dirty videos while laughing uncontrollably (“Edward Penishands, anyone?); having nicknames for some customers, crushes on others; summer nights where my friends would fill the store, never renting anything but visiting for hours; playing 80’s movies on all the screens instead of the “blockbusters” we were supposed to be pushing; eventually getting fired because the owner thought I didn’t have a “good attitude” (i.e. didn’t appreciate his gross sexual harrassment of all the young female employees, nor him slipping me 50 bucks to buy a “cute pair of overalls or something” to replace my slightly tattered (by design!) Levi’s, which he considered inappropriate for work.)

    If it wasn’t for that smarmy bastard firing me, though, I might have stayed there forever (well, until it went under) though, so I guess there’s that. But man, we had so much FUN.

  28. Kelsey on April 18th, 2009 6:18 pm

    I have surprisingly pleasant memories of my job as a cashier at a gas station/convenience store – except for emptying the grease trap beneath the machine that rolled the hot dogs – that was foul!

    I always laughed a little at the people who were angry with me because the gas was so expensive (about $1.13/gal.). I once had a “regular” customer demand to know why I seemed so damn happy all the time. . . probably because of all the free fountain soda!

  29. Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah on April 19th, 2009 7:09 am

    I used to work at a Peaches (the record store, back when CD’s were new).

    I made $3.85 /hr.

    It was the best job I ever had. I loved that place.

  30. beth on April 20th, 2009 6:34 am

    I gotta say I can’t really complain about right here right now…. I get paid to read blogs all day and plan my wedding :)

  31. lee on April 20th, 2009 3:39 pm

    it was 1981 and i worked at wendy’s. i worked the salad bar, which is where pigs got to rutt and make their “diet” dinners. if someone out the wrong spoon in the dressing, protocol was to simply stir the dressing together, so that foul vomity taste in your french dressing was probably because some ass put the bleu cheese ladle in the wrong bucket and i stirred it together. once i was forced to sweep a crock of croutons off the floor and put it on the salad bar- the manager knocked the last of them off the shelf with his enormous ass and we had to have croutons for the district managers visit. i used to go to the walk-in freezer and eat bacon bits a handful at a time. we could buy food for 1/2 price and i used to get a kids cheeseburger meal for .63 cents. then my mom got cancer and they scheduled me for 2 hours one week- 10 pm to midnight, knowing i had to walk 2 miles home. i quit, but not before stealing a huge 2 lb. bag of chili seasoning that lasted my family for 2 years. i also cleaned the dining room and kept all the crap people left on the trays- change, nail polish, even a pair of false teeth. i got a $20 tip from the toothless old man when he came back looking for his teeth (i knew how expensive teeth were because of my grandmother and i knew better than to throw them away!)

    i loved my co-workers.

    my worst job was selling commissary supplies to jails at hugely inflated prices. i felt like we were making profit off the sorrows of others. plus the new manager drank all the time and called me by his ex-wife’s name when he was smashed- which was every day after lunch! i got fired in retaliation for telling on him and got a week’s pay severance. but the joke was on him- i had already found a job making $10K more a year and had planned on leaving him in the lurch! so the severance pay was just a bonus! take that, you drunk SOB!

  32. Erica on April 21st, 2009 7:59 pm

    When I was 16, the summer before my senior year, I began working at a Dairy Queen. I ended up being there about a year – a very long time by teenager standards. It was a lousy job that I came home from every night covered in a crust of melted and dried ice cream that flung out of the blizzard machines. The burgers were greasy, the “ice cream mix” was disgusting, and the pay was abysmal, but I made some really great friends. One, in particular: a wonderful guy I started dating in July of that summer and married two years later. We’re about to celebrate our 12th anniversary and I still make a better sundae that he does!

  33. Amanda on April 22nd, 2009 4:00 am

    I worked in a tanning salon, given the added bonus of all the free tanning I could stand. WHICH WAS A LOT, apparently. I was one crispy chicken.

    Great post, by the way. You crack me up every time, sister.

  34. Frondly on April 22nd, 2009 11:25 am

    Short-lived but worst job ever: 90+ degree summer days spent wiping steamed crawfish remains off outdoor picnic tables at the Bayou Boogaloo and Cajun Food Fest. Yummy yum yum.

  35. Kinzy on April 23rd, 2009 11:35 am

    My first job was as a hostess at a Mexican restaurant owned by a pompous ass and his three brothers and two close friends when I was 15. Being blonde haired and blue eyed, I was like a slab of meat in the presence of a tiger around those guys! Never mind that I was 15! When it was slow, they would all walk across the street to this seedy bar, and would often call me to bring chips and salsa to the bartender in exchange for free drinks for the guys. When I showed up, they would tell (actually slur) me to sit down and have a drink or two. I was FIFTEEN, people!! But that didn’t stop me! The endless learing, sexual comments, inappropriate touching, and constant attempts to get me wasted finally drove me off to a daycare job where I must have been the worst teacher ever! Man, as a mom of two beautiful daughters, I pray that their working environments at that age will be so much less sexually harassing. I think back now of what could have been, and realize that I was lucky to come out of it unscathed.

    My most fun job was as a trainer in another Mexican restaurant. I traveled all over the U.S. opening new stores and training wait staff and bartenders. I made a lot of awesome friends and partied my a** off for three years straight. Might explain why I’m 34 and am just now finishing my bachelor’s program!!

  36. Jem on April 28th, 2009 3:28 am

    yeah Blockbuster…I had the best time with my workmates. Sometimes I miss it a lot, we used to play Motley Crue instead of movies when I was duty manager and I had a lot of good stories like the ones you just told.

    I’m kinda in a similar job at the moment, won’t say where I work but I’ve been called by customers snidely as the “official button pusher”, because they were pushing the wrong buttons and I asked them to stop. Sigh.

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